Despairing Radicals

Blair Worden

  • Sir Philip Sidney: Courtier Poet by Katherine Duncan-Jones
    Hamish Hamilton, 350 pp, £20.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 241 12650 9
  • Algernon Sidney and the Restoration Crisis by Jonathan Scott
    Cambridge, 406 pp, £40.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 521 35291 6
  • Algernon Sidney and the Republican Heritage by Alan Craig Houston
    Princeton, 335 pp, £22.50, November 1991, ISBN 0 691 07860 2
  • Milton’s ‘History of Britain’: Republican Historiography in the English Revolution by Nicholas von Maltzahn
    Oxford, 244 pp, £32.50, November 1991, ISBN 0 19 812897 5

In the gentle countryside to the west of Maidstone in Kent lies Penshurst House, the home of the Sidney family since the middle of the 16th century. The most famous of the Sidneys, Sir Philip, included an affectionate account of Penshurst in his Arcadia, where it is thinly disguised as the house of Kalendar. A generation later Ben Jonson’s poem ‘To Penshurst’ celebrated the house as a landmark of antique virtue and antique hospitality, and contrasted it with the new and vulgar ‘prodigy houses’, such as Hatfield and Audley End, that were ‘built to envious show’ amidst the riot of competitive expenditure in the reign of James I. The Sidneys never had the money to spoil their inheritance, which survives as a glorious muddle of a house, centred on an enchanting Medieval hall and sprawling out into its Renaissance and later additions.

Jonson’s poem makes virtues of the family’s necessities. Though the Sidneys thought of their ancestors as grand Medieval landlords, a conceit reinforced by a fake family tree concocted for Philip’s father, they acquired substance only as members of the new office-holding and courtly nobility that grew up under Henry VIII and Edward VI. The standard of living to which they then grew accustomed became a heavy burden under Elizabeth, whose favours to the family were intermittent and grudging. From the late 16th century to the late 17th – from the time of Sir Philip Sidney to that of his great-nephew the republican Algernon Sidney – there runs a current of failure and indebtedness and bitterness.

The current has been obscured by mythology. Legends have spread luxuriantly around the family’s history, and particularly around those failed politicians, Philip and Algernon. The biographies by Katherine Duncan-Jones and Jonathan Scott are explicitly concerned to get behind the legends. Philip has been mythologised as the model Renaissance and Protestant courtier, whose courage and heroism led to a tragic early death at the battle of Zutphen in 1586. Algernon has been immortalised as a martyr for the principles sanctified by the Revolution of 1688, five years after his execution for treason. The deaths of both men, which created the legends, achieved far more in politics than their lives had done.’ Of course, both men were writers as well as politicians. Philip’s principal legacy is a literary one. Algernon’s Discourses concerning Government would become a textbook of revolutionary principles, particularly in 18th-century America. Yet for both men writing seems to have been a substitute for politics, the product of political frustration and exclusion. Their writings were published only after their deaths, the principal ones left uncompleted.

Until 1581, when the Earl of Leicester, Philip’s uncle and the Queen’s favourite, produced a son, Philip was likely to inherit not merely the Earl’s estate but his political empire. That expectation, as much as Philip’s own gifts, explains the high hopes held of him not only in England but among the Protestant nobility of the Continent, who longed to place him as their ally and spokesman on Elizabeth’s Council. His links with foreign Protestants and with their subversive political theories, and the hints of his willingness to put international loyalties before national ones, help to explain the Queen’s suspicion of him. As his friend Fulke Greville lamented, Philip ‘never was magistrate, nor possessed of any very fit stage for eminence to act upon’. For ‘want of clear vent’ his ‘extraordinary greatness lay concealed’. When the Queen did grant him political commissions it was generally to serve causes to which he was unsympathetic. Even his knighthood was granted for reasons of protocol, not of reward. When at last he was allowed to fight for the Protestant cause in the Netherlands, he botched his chance. The expedition was already in disarray when, on a misty September morning, he was mortally wounded in a pointless skirmish with Spanish troops.

Katherine Duncan-Jones’s Sir Philip Sidney: Courtier Poet is the first major biography of its subject since 1915. Rarely is a scholarly book so spirited, or a spirited book so scholarly. Duncan-Jones’s learning, always profound and never advertised, is communicated with elegance and lightness of touch. She aims ‘not to debunk’ Sidney but to ‘summon him to life, spots and all’. Like so many of his family – not least Algernon – Philip had a querulous, at times violent character. He could also be a prig and a snob. And he could be deeply devious, a characteristic ruefully observed by a victim of it who remarked that Sidney had been bred up ‘at a bad school’, the school of the unscrupulous Leicester. On the credit side are his undoubted charm and affability and the breadth and discernment of his artistic and literary patronage. There is also a bottomless generosity, although here Duncan-Jones seems less clear-eyed than usual. He was indeed wonderfully generous, but with whose money? His mentor Hubert Languet apparently ate into his lifesavings to assist Philip’s gift-giving. On his deathbed Philip willed away endless possessions, and left Sir Francis Walsingham, his father-in-law and executor, to sink beneath the burden of Philip’s debts.

His personal magnetism, doubtless strengthened by the lure of his hand-outs, would be celebrated for other reasons after his death, when he was deified by the martyrologists of international Protestantism. Yet when every allowance for mythology has been made, there remains a charisma which even the most perceptive biographer cannot hope quite to recreate. We can glimpse it in the tributes to Sidney by the great historian William Camden, who had studied with him at Christ Church, Oxford. Camden was no friend to international Protestantism. He despised Leicester. As a rule, he was ‘sparing’ in his ‘commendations’, as he said historians ought to be. Only heartfelt admiration can explain his reverence for Philip’s ‘great virtue, excellent wit, most exquisite learning, and sweet conditions’. When we read Camden we can sense why an anonymous diarist should have noted of Sidney’s death that ‘the very hope of our age seemeth to be utterly extinguished in him.’

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[*] Secker, 331 pp., £25, 27 April, 0 430 42513 0.